A Cup of Java

Originally published in Waitrose Magazine

IN THE FORESTED HILLS above Java’s Ijen Plateau, the farmers of Kayumas are setting out for work. Mopeds splutter along the dusty forest tracks, carrying workers to the village plantations, where they’ll spend the day tending their crops of corn, cloves, ginger and tobacco. Mist is still snaking through the trees, but it’ll burn off before long, and the morning cool will be replaced by the muggy heat of another tropical day.

Mr Rijal has been up since sunrise. He prefers to work early, before the heat of the day becomes too fierce. But there’s a more important reason he’s up at the crack of dawn: morning is the best time of day to tend his prize crop: coffee.

‘You must take care of your coffee trees, like you would your children,’ he explains, checking each bush as he inches down the terraced hillside. ‘When we are harvesting, it is best to work early in the day, when it is cool and there is moisture in the air. We want to pick the cherries at exactly the right time to ensure freshness.’ With a snip of his secateurs, he clips off a stray branch from one of the trees, ensuring it retains its compact, bushy shape: regular pruning removes unproductive branches and allows sunlight and air to reach the rest of the plant, he explains. He’ll spend the next few hours tending his trees, harvesting the cherries and pruning by hand, painstakingly checking each one for signs of pests or disease. For Mr Rijal and the other farmers of Kayumas, coffee is both a livelihood, and a labour of love.

The history of coffee-growing in Indonesia stretches back more than three hundred years. In the late 16th century, Dutch traders realised the suitability of the Indonesian climate for coffee cultivation, thanks to its combination of volcanic soil, tropical heat, altitude and humidity. The Dutch East India Company established the first plantations around Batavia (then the island’s capital) in the late 17th century. By the 1800s, the island had becoming the world’s principal coffee exporter, supplying coffee houses, cafes and salons all over Europe. In fact, Java coffee became so ubiquitous, the island’s name has become synonymous with its most famous export.

Java’s finest coffee is grown on the rich slopes around the Ijen Plateau, a sprawling, geologically active region in the district of Situbondo, overlooked by the active volcanoes of Ijen, Merapi and Raung. Most coffee is grown at altitudes between 1200 and 1700m, where cooler temperatures and more regular rainfall ensure better harvests and fewer pests. Traditionally, coffee trees in Ijen are planted on terraced hillsides, an ancient cultivation system which both retains water and makes harvesting easier, with shade provided naturally by the dense, tangled canopy of tropical forest.

In total, there are 3056 hectares of coffee plantations around Situbondo, with another 12,798 hectares in neighbouring Bondowoso. Most of the land is given over to growing robusta, a lower-grade bean that’s usually used for instant and blended coffee. Unusually, Kayumas largely focuses on growing arabica coffee, the premium-quality bean most coveted by western markets. The co-operative’s coffee is grown along organic principles and approved by the Rainforest Alliance, a testament to the farmers’ commitment to environmental stewardship; all the beans are sun-dried, giving the coffee a bright, citrus flavour, balanced by deep, chocolatey undertones. But apart from its distinctive flavour profile, there’s another reason that Mr Rijal and Kayumas’ other farmers can be especially proud of their coffee crop. As of May 2018 , it’s not just the only co-operative in Situbondo that’s certified Fairtrade – it’s the only one in all of Java.

‘It’s incredibly exciting for us,’ explains Polly Astbury, Waitrose’s Head Buyer for Coffee, Tea and Hot Beverages, who has made a pilgrimage to Kayumas to meet the growers who will be supplying their Fairtrade coffee to Waitrose’s shelves. ‘For years, we’ve had an ambition to make all our own-brand No. 1 coffees Fairtrade. Java was the last one we had to tick off our list. It’s taken a long time and a lot of hard work, but with the help of Fairtrade and the amazing farmers here at Kayumas, we’ve finally managed it. To be able to say that we’re the first UK supermarket selling Fairtrade-certified Java coffee makes me really proud.’

It’s taken nearly three years of work for the farmers of Kayumas to achieve their certification. The status brings many benefits – access to educational and training programmes, improved working conditions, assistance with environmental sustainability – but the most important is the Fairtrade Premium, which guarantees a fixed sum on top of the coffee market price, paid directly into a communal fund that can be used to finance community projects identified by the villagers.

‘With our first payment, we built a new access road up to the village,’ explains Mrs Siti, her head wrapped in a brightly coloured hijab. As the co-op’s chairwoman, she has overseen and championed its transition to Fairtrade status; although her five-year term is coming to an end soon, she hopes to be re-elected next year. ‘The old road was often washed away during the monsoon, but now we can export our coffee whatever the weather brings. Next, we are planning to buy a hulling machine[1], so we can do more of the processing ourselves. Fairtrade has made a huge difference to the lives of everyone in Kayumas. I hope the next five years will be even more prosperous, God willing.’

The Kayumas co-op’s Fairtrade status represents another major step forward in the development towards a sustainable coffee industry in Indonesia. At present, the country has 24 Fairtrade coffee co-ops, mainly located on the island of Sumatra, but Fairtrade still only represents a fraction of the country’s coffee harvest: currently, 8752 metric tonnes of green bean coffee in Indonesia is sold as Fairtrade, from a total of 612,000, around 1.4%. As such, it’s hoped that Kayumas’ certification will encourage other co-ops across Java to follow suit.

‘Fairtrade is such an important initiative for the coffee industry in Indonesia,’ explains Hagung Hendrawan, Fairtrade’s Indonesian Coffee Manager, who has accompanied Polly on her trip. ‘Having a guaranteed price for their coffee means farmers can focus on other issues like sustainability, environmental standards and social welfare. It makes a real difference to peoples’ lives. That’s why it’s so important that UK consumers continue helping us to support projects like this.’

While this year’s harvest isn’t over quite yet, today is a special day, and everyone seems happy to put down their tools and enjoy the celebrations. Back in the main square, Mrs Siti and the villagers have prepared a feast in honour of their guests’ visit, along with a coffee-themed dance that’s been choreographed specially for the occasion. Four village girls whirl around in unison, miming the act of cherry-picking and bean-sorting, accompanied by a soundtrack of booming Javanese pop. After a round of applause, everyone settles down for lunch – followed, of course, by a brew of the season’s new beans: rich, robust and black as night.

‘I hope you enjoy our coffee,’ says Mrs Siti, beaming from ear to ear. ‘We have grown it with all our love.’

5 FACTS ABOUT COFFEE

  • Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer after Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia
  • Coffee trees can live for between 20 and 30 years
  • Coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity after oil
  • Coffee beans are actually seeds
  • A cup of black coffee only contains one calorie

FAIRTRADE AT 25

This October, Fairtrade Foundation UK celebrates its 25th anniversary, meaning that it’s been exactly 2½ decades since the first Fairtrade certified products hit the shelves in the UK market. The international Fairtrade organisation was formed as a reaction to the crisis facing coffee farmers in Mexico in the 1980s, when the price they received for their crops collapsed. But despite the huge success of the movement, the problems facing farmers and workers around the world continue, which is why it’s as important as ever for the Fairtrade Foundation to campaign for living incomes to become a reality for all farmers and workers – and for consumers to support their work.

ARABICA AND ROBUSTA

You might not think much about it when you’re drinking your daily cup, but there are actually dozens of different varieties of coffee plant, all with their own characteristics and flavours. The two main ones used in coffee production are robusta and arabica. Arabica tends to have a sweeter, softer taste, with a higher acidity and a fruity flavour profile; it grows at higher altitudes and is generally the variety found in single-origin coffees. Robusta has a more bitter, harsher taste, with a nutty flavour profile and almost twice as much caffeine as Arabica. It grows at lower altitudes and is often used in blended coffees, especially espresso blends, due to the rich crema it produces.